Every day, millions of African Americans engage in the ritual of grooming. It may seem commonplace, but applying hair grease to one’s scalp or getting a relaxer served as a catalyst for wealth creation among a group of black entrepreneurs for decades. Before majority-owned corporations began acquiring companies like Johnson Products, SoftSheen, and Pro-Line, black-owned haircare firms were a dominant force among the BE 100S. But the multibillion-dollar black haircare market wouldn’t have even existed were it not for the bold vision of Madame C.J. Walker.
At the turn of the 20th century, Walker believed enhancing the appearance of black women would lead, in part, to their economic and social ascent. With that mission and unyielding determination, Walker created a range of haircare and cosmetic products and, in the process, built the nation’s largest black-owned company of her time. Widely reported to be the first black self-made millionaire, Walker broke new ground, creating wealth through entrepreneurship and real estate, financing black institutions, and mentoring professionals. In fact, Walker has been considered such a powerful force that she led BLACK ENTERPRISE’s reader’s choice for the 10 most important black business luminaries, a poll developed in 2000 for our 30th anniversary.
Born Sarah Breedlove on a Louisiana plantation four years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Walker made a living as a laundress and sought to elevate her standing by attending night school. “I got my start by giving myself a start,” she was quoted as saying.
During the early 1900s, the budding entrepreneur dabbled with homemade remedies and other products to cure a scalp ailment that caused hair loss. By 1905, after moving to Denver and marrying her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker, she launched her company with Madame Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, a hair and scalp conditioner.
Over the next 14 years, she developed a fully integrated enterprise and employed innovative business practices. The Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Co. created hair and scalp treatments in its own plants and owned the beauty shops that used and promoted them. Walker expanded her empire by deploying a nationwide sales force known as the “Walker Agents.” These impeccably dressed reps demonstrated and sold products door-to-door and provided customers with grooming techniques. By 1917, Madame C.J. Walker Co. generated revenues of roughly $500,000.
Shrewd real estate investments also played a large role in her personal wealth-building strategy. Walker owned properties in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and New York, including an apartment building on Central Park West. Her crown jewel, however, was Villa Lewaro, a $250,000, 20-room Georgian mansion on the Hudson River. True to her principle of black empowerment, she hired a black architect to design her elegant estate, which was located in the same community as the Rockefellers, Tiffanys, and Vanderbilts.
Walker also used her money to fuel philanthropic pursuits and social activism. The woman who squirreled away her $1.50-a-day earnings to pay for her daughter’s education donated thousands to Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute and the institution that would become Bethune-Cookman College. One of the NAACP’s major